Many players have made their mark on the chess landscape throughout its history. As a result, debates on who the best chess players of all time would remain unsettled.
It may be hard to rank different players from different eras objectively. But there are names that are too influential not to include when talking about the best players. Names like Garry Kasparov, Magnus Carlsen, and Bobby Fisher would surely come to mind.
From a gentleman who dominated chess almost 200 years ago to the current champion who squeezes water from a rock, this list of players left their mark on the game in more ways than one. Join us as we explore the chess world and look at the 9 best chess players of all time.
The Best Chess Players to Ever Grace the Board
Ranking the best chess players can’t be done objectively. There are too many factors to consider.
Neither the Elo rating nor the title is sufficient as metrics. The availability of tournaments affects these. For example, a formidable player might not achieve the GM norm because he was not allowed to play in other tournaments (I’m looking at you, Nezhmetdinov).
That said, we decided to rank the 9 of them chronologically.
1. Paul Charles Morphy (1837 – 1884)
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Morphy showed promise from a very young age.
At the age of eight, he recreated a position played by his father and uncle to a draw and showed them how his uncle could’ve won. Dubbed “The Pride and Sorrow of Chess,” he learned how to play chess independently by watching others.
When he turned nine, he was considered one of the strongest in New Orleans. Just four years later, he was among the best in the country. When he turned 20, he was recognized as the official US Champion after winning the First American Chess Congress.
Looking for more formidable opponents, he left for Europe at the age of 21 and conquered his new opponents. Morphy was unofficially celebrated as “World Champion” at the time. He was so dominant that he even said he wouldn’t play anyone without a handicap.
Morphy’s supremacy is attributed to his understanding of piece development and mastery of chess openings. He was also a great tactical player who could spot moves quickly. As Anderssen would remark, “Morphy wins his games in seventeen moves and I in seventy.”
When he returned from Europe at 22, he stuck to his word and didn’t play chess without a handicap. After spending much of his years in idleness, he developed mental health conditions around the age of 38.
Nine years later, Morphy was found dead in his bathtub.
2. Emanuel Lasker (1868 – 1941)
Born to a Jewish family in 1968, Emanual showed chess talent early on. But what kickstarted his chess journey was his brother, Berthold, who was among the strongest players of the 1890s.
He then rose to prominence by winning local tournaments, including the cafe’s Winter Tournament in 1988 and Hauptturnier. By then, he had gained the title “Master” from the German Chess Federation.
That’s only the beginning for him, though. He’d then proceed to do amazing feats in international tournaments. One example of such accomplishments is when he won an international tournament in New York, in 1893, with a perfect score of 13/13.
At his peak, Lasker would win the World Chess Championship. He’d hold the title for 27 years straight, fending off fierce players like Steinitz, Marshall, and Tarrasch. His adaptive and unconfined style would prove to be a significant deterrent to positional players of the time.
Lasker would eventually lose the World Chess Championship to Jose Capablanca but would still be active in international tournaments. In another New York tournament in 1924, he’d even finish first, defeating the current champion, Capablanca, and the future champion Alekhine.
3. Jose Raul Capablanca (1888 – 1942)
Nicknamed “The Human Chess Machine,” Capablanca was another tale of chess talent. After learning chess from his father at the age of four, he continued to hone his game skills.
Two days before his 13th birthday, he won the Cuban Championship. He remained the champion until he left Cuba.
Capa would then travel to 27 cities to hold simultaneous exhibitions, where he achieved an exemplary win rate of 96.4%. Afterward, he’d win various international tournaments.
By 1921, he challenged the reigning World Champion for 27 years, Emanuel Lasker. Their match resulted in 9-5, with Capa winning 4 of the games. He reigned as the champion for the next six years.
Considered a great positional player, he’d improve on the school of positional chess founded by Wilhelm Steinitz. This positional play would allow him to have simpler positions that he could deconstruct easier, making for cleaner play and fewer blunders.
4. Mikhail Botvinnik (1911 – 1995)
Mikhail “The Great Stone Face” Botvinnik was the 6th World Chess Champion and one of the most prolific contributors to chess theory.
Botvinnik learned chess much later than others on this list, at the age of 12—but that didn’t matter because of his immense dedication to mastering the game. Just a year after he learned and fell in love with the game, he won first place in his school championship.
His career would then be riddled with wins. He became the USSR Chess champion seven times, establishing himself as the best Soviet player of his generation.
In 1948, Botvinnik would become the World Chess Champion after a quintuple round robin with Vasily Smyslov, Paul Keres, Samuel Reshevsky, and former World Chess Champion Max Euwe.
Botvinnik’s contributions to chess didn’t stop at winning tournaments. As an electrical engineer and computer scientist, he emphasized the use of logic and the importance of studies. His preparations and comprehensive research are still utilized to this day.
As a result, Botvinnik helped usher in the Soviet era of chess with his studies on chess openings. He paved the way for the USSR to dominate the chess world.
5. Mikhail Tal (1936 – 1932)
Yet another Mikhail in the list, The Magician from Riga, was one of the most beloved chess players. Tal was a Latvian grandmaster renowned for his creative play style and relentless attacks.
His strength rests on his ability to develop and sacrifice his pieces to conjure attacks seemingly out of nothing, hence his nickname.
His relentless attacks proved successful against the players at the time who focused on positional play. Due to that, he became the youngest World Champion then at the age of 23.
He also won multiple tournaments involving the strongest players of his era. Additionally, he won the USSR Chess Championships six times, placing second to Botvinnik in most wins.
Despite only winning one World Championship, Tal was undoubtedly a master tactician. His games were so complex that they’re still being studied today.
6. Robbert “Bobby” Fisher (1943 – 2008)
Another chess prodigy who started playing at a very young age was Bobby Fisher. By the time he was 14, he had won the first of his eight US Chess Championship titles. That makes him the youngest chess player to do so.
Like Lasker, he also achieved a perfect score in a major tournament. In his 6th US Championship, Fisher won 11 out of 11, wiping the competition.
Fisher’s career was full of ups and downs. He took a hiatus from chess twice, first in the mid-1960s and then in late 1968. But every time he returned, his performance just seemed to improve.
When he returned in 1969, Fisher started his World Championship journey. He won interzonal tournaments and treaded far ahead of the competition. Before their match, he was rated 2785, 125 Elo points higher than Borris Spassky’s 2660.
In the 1972 World Chess Championship, he’d beat Spassky by four points, 12.5–8.5, after winning 7 of the 21 games they played. The match gained media interest because of the ongoing cold war and was dubbed “The Match of the Century.”
Among chess enthusiasts, though, the importance of Fisher’s win lay in the fact that he briefly ended Soviet Russia’s chess domination.
After winning the title, Fisher faded into obscurity and never played serious chess for nearly two decades. After being branded a fugitive, his later life would be full of controversies.
7. Anatoly Karpov (1951 – Present)
Anatoly Karpov was only four years old when he learned to play chess. But he wasn’t like Morphy or Capablanca, who mastered the game alone.
There, he improved immensely and became one of the youngest Soviet chess masters at the age of 15, alongside Spassky.
During his teenage years, Karpov would win various junior tournaments in Europe. In 1969, he performed spectacularly in the World Junior Championship, ending with a score of 10/11.
This win would qualify him for the interzonal tournaments. He finished first in the 1973 Leningrad Interzonal, qualifying in the Candidates Tournament.
He’d win the Candidates most convincingly, defeating former World Champion Boris Spassky in the semifinals and Victor Korchnoi in the finals.
After failing to reach an agreement with Fisher, he was inducted as the World Champion by default. Despite getting his first World Champion title by default, Karpov would prove himself worthy by decisively winning many of the following significant tournaments.
He’d also defend his title successfully for two Championships. In 1984, his match with Garry Kasparov would be inconclusive, making him the champion by default once more. This event would mark the start of the greatest rivalry in chess.
8. Garry Kasparov (1963 – Present)
Garry, “The Beast of Baku” Kasparov, was among the players who started to learn chess at a young age. By the time he was ten, Kasparov attended the prestigious school of Botvinnik. There, he’d improve his opening repertoire and positional skills.
When he turned 13, he’d win the Soviet Junior Championship. During his teenage years, he climbed the rankings by winning international and interzonal tournaments. When he turned 19, he was already the 2nd highest-rated player and would qualify for the candidates.
His first meeting with Karpov in the 1984 World Chess Championship would end inconclusively.
But the rematch they had the following year would end with him on top, setting the record for the youngest World Champion. Their rivalry continued for three more championships, all of which Kasparov would win.
In 1993, he created his association called PCA after disputes with FIDE. This created two separate world championships until 2006.
Under PCA, he’d win two title bouts against Nigel Short in 1993 and Viswanathan Anand in 1995. His reign of 15 years would end in 2000 when Vladimir Kramnik defeated him.
9. Magnus Carlsen (1990 – Present)
Like many on this list, Magnus Carlsen also showed talent at a young age. When he was just 14, he’d hold his own against former World Champions Karpov and Kasparov. In the same year, he became a grandmaster.
His ability to manage his time allowed him to become the World Blitz Champion in 2009. In 2013, Magnus won the Candidates Tournament with 1 point ahead of the competition.
He’d challenge Anand for the title the same year where he’d win with three wins out of 10, 6.5-3.5 total.
Magnus is notorious as an endgame beast. He plays excellent positional chess, trades everything, and grinds you in the endgame. He’s also a solid defender and can turn defeats into draws.
At his peak in 2014, Magnus set the record for the highest Elo rating at 2882.
Magnus had won 5 World Chess Championships in total, from 2013 to 2021. After winning in 2021, Magnus made the news by announcing that he wouldn’t defend his title.
To Sum It Up
Chess is such a complicated game. Because of that, attempting to rank its greatest player objectively is virtually impossible. Picking one GOAT on this list essentially puts you in a zugzwang. It will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers.
Pick anyone you relate to the most within the list, or add your picks that weren’t mentioned. Just be civil in your debates, and when it can’t be helped, solve it over the board.
There’s always an argument to be made for and against these players. But what is indisputable is that they all contributed to how the game we love is being played today.